The Nation’s First Regional Ocean Planning Body Meets

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By Sean Cosgrove, Conservation Law Foundation

“I’ve often heard the phrase ‘everyone has a seat at the table,’ but this is the first time I’ve seen it,” said National Marine Fisheries Service Regional Administrator John Bullard. His keynote statement pretty well summed up the sense of opportunity in the comments of most members of the Northeast Regional Planning Body at its inaugural meeting this week in Portland, Maine.

As established by the (US) National Ocean Policy, the regional planning body (RPB) consists of representatives from federal and state agencies, regional tribes, the New England Fishery Management Council, and an ex officio member from Canada. The RPB was brought together to design the process for the first regional ocean plan to be developed in the United States. Being the RPB’s first meeting, the agenda largely consisted of topics which one might think need to be tackled: what does stakeholder engagement look like, how should the RPB make decisions, what are the RPB’s initial products, and, what is the best way to assess their own capacities? As one might easily predict with a group which represents so many diverse communities and constituents, not all issues were settled right away. However, the fact that this body was actually in one room and talking to each other gave us the feeling of much-anticipated progress.

It’d been a long road to get to this point. The National Ocean Policy (NOP) had barely been released with President Obama’s signature in July of 2010 when it came under attack by some in Congress whose own particular constituents assumed they would benefit more from the status quo. The NOP clearly states that the nine priority objectives would be implemented through existing programs and statutes, but that alone didn’t stave off an attempt to restrict all funding for its implementation. The popular support which arose to successfully defend the NOP came in the form of conservation groups, small boat fishermen, scientists, coastal business owners, surfers, coastal states, and others who knew that the status quo approach to coastal, ocean, and Great Lakes management wasn’t up to the task of addressing the big issues facing coastal communities and sustainably growing the economy.

The Northeast Regional Planning Body at the Big Table (Photo credit: Robin Just)

Positive statements and sound advice came from most of the 17 public speakers including from NEOAN, the regional network developed to support a regional ocean planning process in New England, Dr. Sandra Whitehouse of the Ocean Conservancy, Dr. Michael Tlusty of the New England Aquarium, and a representative of the American Sportfishing Association who said he had arrived at the meeting with skepticism but that “…as the process unfolds today we have reason for optimism…”

At the end of the day-and-a-half meeting there were plenty of details for the RPB to work out. The immediate outcome was a clear consensus that “stakeholders” needed to be treated as partners, and that a more inclusive planning process, rich in shared data and knowledge, was more likely to bring more people and agencies together to create real solutions for very real ocean management problems. Again, John Bullard captured the moment when he addressed the RPB and the audience in the room: “Conflict isn’t new. It will always be there. But, now we have the National Ocean Policy and a transparent, bottom up process – that’s you.”

Sean Cosgrove is Ocean Campaign Director for the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF). Sean has over twenty years experience as a conservation advocate and has extensive experience in designing and directing grassroots conservation campaigns, working legislation and appropriations issues on Capitol Hill and in the media. Sean earned a B.A. in History and a B.S. in Environmental Science from Western Washington University. He loves to sit in a sea kayak far offshore.